Christian apologists, both real and would-be, argue that the willingness of the apostles to die for their faith is proof that the resurrection of Jesus was a real experience in their lives. People will die for what they believe to be true, the argument goes, but they would not die for what they know is not true. In this issue (pp. 10-11), Dave Matson has rebutted this argument by showing how that the postresurrection appearances of Jesus could well have been only imaginary or psychological experiences of those who allegedly claimed that they saw Jesus alive after his death. If so, then the apostles who were martyred (if indeed any were) would have died not for what they knew to be true but only for what they thought they knew was true. There's a big difference.
To have a cogent argument, then, Christian apologists would have to prove the unprovable and establish that the apostles did actually know that their postresurrection experiences were real and not merely psychological, and with all of the apostles long dead, there is no way that any apologist could do this. There is even another hurdle in the path of this argument that is impossible for resurrection proponents to clear. They must show convincing evidence that the apostles did indeed suffer martyrdom for what they preached.
Christians bandy this argument about so much that many will no doubt think it strange that anyone would question that the apostles died as martyrs, but the truth is that the evidence of widespread martyrdom in the early church is very weak. The claim assumes the historical accuracy of the New Testament, which makes some scattered references to persecutions of early Christians (Acts 8:1; 11:19; 13:50; 2 Thess. 1:4), but if the accuracy of the New Testament is to be assumed, then it would be pointless to debate any of the major apologetic claims, because the New Testament does claim that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he worked many miracles, that he was resurrected from the dead, that he ascended into heaven, etc. Outside of the New Testament, however, evidence of wholesale persecutions of early Christians is primarily a tradition that has been foisted on an unsuspecting Christian public. In his debate with Celsum, Origen, as late as A. D. 240-250, said that the number of Christian martyrs was "few" and "easily numbered":
For in order to remind others, that by seeing a few engaged in a struggle for their religion, they also might be better fitted to despise death, some, on special occasions, and these individuals who can be easily numbered, have endured death for the sake of Christianity (Contra Celsum, Book 3, Chapter 8, emphasis added).
So if more than two centuries after Christianity had its beginning, an important "church father" like Origen could say to a doubter that those who "have endured death for the sake of Christianity" could be "easily numbered," that gives little support for the traditional view of the apostles and early Christians dying in droves for their beliefs.
In the matter of martyrdom suffered by the apostles, there is a larger question that needs to be resolved. Were the apostles even real historical persons? There are reasons to suspect that at least some of them were merely legendary figures. Here presumably were men who took the gospel into various countries and provinces, but the only records of their activities are to be found in the traditions and writings of early church leaders, who had a special interest in the growth of Christianity. According to the book of Acts, for example, the apostle Paul stirred up public controversy almost everywhere he went on his missionary tours. In Philippi, Paul and Silas were allegedly beaten and thrown into prison for having cast a "spirit of divination" out of a young lady who had brought considerable gain to her masters through fortune-telling (Acts 16:16-24). While they were in prison, a great earthquake struck (as earthquakes did so often in those days when Christian activities were going on), opened the doors, and shook off the bonds of Paul and Silas (v:26). In Lystra, Paul and Barnabas were mobbed by a crowd and worshiped as the gods Jupiter and Mercury (Acts 14:11-13). Later Paul was stoned in the city, dragged outside, and left for dead (v:19). While preaching in the province of Asia, a pagan mob rioted in protest of Paul's preaching and would have lynched him and his companions except for the intervention of a town clerk (Acts 19:23-41). Everywhere Paul went controversy like this allegedly followed him, yet there are no records outside of the New Testament of any of his activities.
Since the New Testament is relatively silent on postresurrection activities of the other apostles, we "know" even less about their evangelistic work. What we do know is mainly a matter of tradition, which is all that Christians can offer in support of their claim that the apostles died for their beliefs. The problem with these traditions is that they are (1) unverifiable and (2) contradictory. One tradition, for example, says that the apostle Paul was tried in Rome and executed, but another tradition says that he was released and went to Spain to do more missionary work. So which tradition do we accept? When traditions are in conflict, how do we determine which, if any, is the truth?
In The Search for the Twelve Apostles, Dr. William Steuart McBirnie examined the maze of traditions about the fate of the apostles, and although he seemed to retain his belief that the apostles were real historical characters who had suffered persecution and often martyrdom, he admitted that the traditions were sometimes so inconsistent and contradictory that it cannot now be determined how all of the apostles died. He referred to Tertullian's claim that the apostle John was tortured and "boiled in oil but was delivered miraculously," and then admitted that "(t)his story does not seem to have much foundation in historical fact," even though tradition says that the Church of San Giovanni "has been built on the spot in Rome" in honor of the apostle's escape (Tyndale House, 1977, pp. 116-117). McBirnie concluded that the best traditional evidence indicates that John died in Ephesus of old age. If this is so, John would not have been an example of an apostle who died for what he knew was right.
McBirnie had no better luck in trying to determine the fate of other apostles. He found Matthew to be an especially confusing case. Various traditions had Matthew preaching in places as far flung as Ethiopia, Persia, Parthia, Isidore, and Macedonia (p. 176). The traditions relate preposterous accounts of attempts that were made to kill him, which he, like John, miraculously escaped from. In one tradition, a jealous king tried to have Matthew burned alive, but the flames flew out, took the form of a dragon, and curled around the king. McBirnie concluded that "(t)here are too many stories of Matthew's death to be certain just where he died" (p. 182), but even though he had earlier cited Heracleon and Clement of Alexandria (The Miscellanies, 4, 9), who had both said that Matthew died a natural death (pp. 175-176), McBirnie would not give up so easily on his desire to find martyred apostles. "It is perhaps possible that Matthew was martyred in Egypt upon his return from Ethiopia in Africa," he said, "but this conclusion is not certain" (p. 182, emphasis added).
Uncertainty was what McBirnie seemed to find everywhere in his research. He found traditions that said Bartholomew was "flayed alive and crucified in agony" in India after banishing a demon from the idol of a king (p. 135). He found other traditions that said Bartholomew was martyred in Armenia. To reconcile the conflicting traditions, he cited Edgar Goodspeed, who had suggested that "India" was a "term very loosely used by the ancients" (p. 133).
McBirnie's search for the fate of the other apostles uncovered traditions that were just as inconsistent and uncertain as those noted above. He claimed that his research took him three times to the island of Patmos (where John allegedly wrote Revelation) and to the locations of the seven churches of Asia cited in Revelation (p.7). He traveled to Germany, Rome, Greece, Lebanon, and "almost every Middle Eastern country." The other locations he visited and libraries and archives he claimed to have used are too numerous to list here, but the results of his research were as noted above, i. e., too much inconsistency and contradiction to determine with certainty how and where the apostles died.
Despite the uncertainty he found in his research, apparently
McBirdie still retained his belief that the apostles were real
historical people who had suffered persecution and martyrdom for their
faith. No doubt many Christians who read this article will lay it aside
and continue like parrots to ask the same question: "Why would the
apostles have died for something they knew was false?"